I am often asked how to be a better student of the word of God. The next few articles will give some suggestions to help you become a better Bible student. To begin with, you must have confidence in the integrity of the Scriptures as literally the word of God. Many today do not believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible. They claim that somehow the thoughts of the Bible writers are inspired , but not the actual words. But Paul says, All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (2 Tim. 3:16). The phrase inspiration of God is the Greek word theopneustos and means literally God breathed. The term Scripture comes from the Greek word grapho which means to write. Since that which is written consists of words, we must conclude that every single word of the Bible is God breathed or inspired. Jeremiah the prophet claimed verbal inspiration as he said, Then Jehovah put forth his hand, and touched my mouth; and Jehovah said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth. (Jer. 1:9). Luke records that on the Day of Pentecost the apostles spoke as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4). Furthermore, Jesus endorsed the concept of verbal inspiration as He noted that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4). The Bible is literally the word of God.
Once one has accepted the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, the good student would do well to have a general sense of the historical framework of the Bible. These writings did not exist in a vacuum, and must be studied within the contextual framework of history. The historical significance of the Old Testament must be carefully distinguished from that of the New Testament. The book of Genesis records God s dealings with man from the time of creation until the giving of His first written law. The balance of the Old Testament relates mostly to the development of the Hebrew nation, and God s use of these people through whom the Messiah (Christ the Savior) would come to earth. The New Testament begins with the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) that record the birth, ministry and, ultimately, the death, burial, resurrection, ascension and glorification of Jesus Christ. The book of Acts records the establishment of Christ s church as the gospel was taken throughout the world. The remainder of the New Testament contains a collection of letters written to churches and individuals in which the apostles and other inspired writers deal with problems and challenges facing first century Christians. Understanding the fundamental difference in the two major sections of the Bible is paramount.
Since most people do not read either Hebrew or Greek, they must rely upon a good English translation to study the Scriptures. It s imperative that we choose a translation that attempts to approximate, as closely as possible the exact message of the original language. While it s true that the translation process does not in and of itself interfere with the integrity of the text, as evidenced by Jesus who often quoted from the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament into Greek), if we do not choose an accurate translation we will not know the truth of God. Translators of the older English versions such as the King James Version adhered to a philosophy now known as Form Equivalence, i.e., the idea that each word of the original language should be reproduced as precisely as possible, while maintaining clarity consistent with good English. Unfortunately, many later versions have adopted a looser ideology known as Dynamic Equivalence which focuses more on conveying the original author s thoughts, rather than being overly concerned with his words. When this is used, the translator has a tendency to be more of a commentator and can easily interject his own bias and agenda into the translation. So which translations are best and which should be avoided? Find out next week.
Choosing a good English translation of the Scriptures is crucial for the serious Bible student. If the translation is faulty you cannot expect to ascertain the truth of God. In recent years there has been considerable controversy over the use of translations with some so radical to suggest that the King James Version is the only reliable translation of the Word of God in existence. This is not the case. Even though the KJV is almost 400 years old (translated in 1611), it remains a good translation. While it does have its own problems, the greater danger is with some of the more modern translations that play fast and loose with text. Someone says, But they are so much easier to understand. While this may be so, what difference does it make how easy it is to understand if what you are reading is not the inspired word of God? Many of these new translations are nothing more that commentaries which contain all the bias and prejudice of the men who wrote them. So which translations are most accurate? The KJV and the American Standard Version of 1901 are excellent but contain antiquated English hard to understand by some. Of the newer translations the New King James Bible is perhaps the best in my opinion. But the New American Standard Bible and The English Standard Version are good as well.
Once we have a reliable English translation of the Scriptures, our study of the Bible must be deliberate. While God s word has been revealed in its entirety (2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Jude 3; etc.) and has been recorded so that we may understand what is written (Eph. 3:3-5), not everything in the Bible is applicable to man today. The writer of the Hebrew letter says, God, who at various times and in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son (Heb. 1:1, 2). The writer is drawing a distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Before Christ came, God spoke to patriarchs (fathers) such as Noah and Abraham giving them instruction for their families. Later He spoke to the children of Israel through prophets like Moses giving specific instruction to the Hebrew nation. But now all authority has been given to Christ (Matt. 28:18), and He speaks to us today through the pages of the New Testament. While there are certain principles carried over from the Old Covenant to the New, we cannot go to the Old Testament to find specific instruction on how to please God today. To do so is to not rightly divide or handle aright the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). It is the New Testament that contains God s specific instruction for man today.
Closely associated to distinguishing between the Old and New Testaments as the source for divine instruction for man today is remembering that while the Scriptures do contain God s law, the Bible is not a codified book of law. It is, rather, a compilation of documents, manuscripts and letters written by many different authors from multiple backgrounds over several centuries. We must, therefore, be careful to consider the context of the passage under consideration in order to understand it and apply it correctly. To establish context we must ask ourselves three questions: 1) who is speaking? 2) to whom are they speaking? and 3) the circumstances under which they are speaking? If we do not answer these questions and maintain the context of the passage we are studying, we may very well pervert the truth of God. For instance, if we turn to Genesis 6:14 and read, Make yourself an ark of gopherwood, and do not consider the context of the command, we might begin building a 150 ft. boat. Because the context shows God speaking to Noah to prepare him for a cataclysmic flood, we understand the command is not intended for us today. While this example may seem ridiculous, the establishment of context is crucial if we are to accurately determine how God is to be worshipped and served acceptably today.
Having addressed the necessity to use a good and competent translation of the Scriptures and to maintain the context of the passage we are studying, we now turn our attention to another extremely important aspect of our understanding God s word: determining whether the language is literal or figurative in nature. The Scriptures abound in a great variety of figures of speech. If we do not recognize the language as figurative we can easily distort the truth of God. A figure of speech occurs when a word, phrase or sentence is used in a sense other than the usual or literal sense. Figures of speech are used for a number of reasons such as adding emphasis, feeling or color to the thought presented, to intensify the idea being conveyed, and, in the case of apocalyptic literature, to even conceal God s word from certain individuals. There are several common sense principles that must be remembered in the identification of figurative language. First of all, words must be understood literally unless the sense of the language implies an impossibility. For example, John closes his gospel stating that Jesus did many other miracles, which if recorded the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21:25). This language is not literal but hyperbolic; it is an exaggeration for the purpose of emphasis.
Determining whether language is literal or figurative is crucial if we are to understand the Scriptures accurately. Among those common sense principles that must be remembered in the identification of figurative language is the fact that words must be interpreted literally unless the sense implies a contradiction. For instance, Revelation 21:14 depicts heaven as an ancient city with its wall resting on twelve foundations, upon which were written the names of the twelve apostles. Since the number twelve as used here contradicts the actual number of apostles (there were thirteen: the original twelve, minus Judas, plus Matthias, plus Paul), it is clear that the number twelve is used to represent the whole apostolic company, without literal, mathematical precision. Not only so, words must be interpreted literally unless the sense implies an absurdity. In the Scriptures we find the term face used figuratively many times, e.g., face of the deep (Gen. 1:2), face of the earth (Gen. 1:29), etc. It would be absurd to understand the word face literally with reference to the sea, or the earth. Finally, the book itself may indicate the abundant use of figurative language. The book of Revelation, for example, begins with the notation that Christ signified (Greek semaino: to show by a sign ) the message, to the apostle John (Rev. 1:1).
When teaching in the temple, the chief priests and the elders came to Jesus and asked, By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority? (Matt. 21:23). This is indeed a significant question and one that we all ought to ask. Today too few people are concerned about authority in religion. Jesus responds to their question by asking, The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men? (v. 25). By asking this question He identifies two sources of authority, that which comes from God and that which comes from man. Clearly Jesus implies that His authority was divine in nature. To be pleasing in the sight of God, we must have divine authority for all that we teach and practice. The apostle Paul writes, And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col. 3:17). Jesus said, All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). Christ is far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named (Eph. 1:21). The fact is, There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). Our salvation is dependent upon limiting ourselves to teaching and practicing only that which is authorized in the New Testament.
All authority belongs to Christ (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:21). What Christ says is authoritative and should be viewed as such. The Hebrew writer says, God, who at various times in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son (Heb. 1:1). The writer is contrasting the Old Testament with the New making it clear that the New Testament is God speaking to us by His Son. Inspired men recorded Christ s words giving us authority for all we say and do today (Eph. 3:3-5; Col. 3:17). But how is authority established? Certainly a direct command is authoritative and should be obeyed. When Christ tells us to do something we must do it. But authority is also established by observing what first century Christians did to please God. Since God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), we can rest assured that if we follow the approved example of those that pleased Him in the first century, we will find God s pleasure today, for behind every approved example is a command of God. Furthermore, as we collect evidence concerning God s will we will draw a conclusion, certain things being inferred. This inference is necessary to the extent the evidence demands it becoming essential to obeying the command or following the approved example. In these ways authority is established.
The good Bible student must have respect for God s law. God told the children of Israel concerning His law, Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it, that ye may keep the commandments of Jehovah your God which I command you (Deut. 4:2). The apostle Paul reiterates this principle when he tells the Corinthians not to go beyond the things which are written (1 Cor. 4:6). This means that we are to respect not only what God says, but what God does not say. In other words, the silence of the Scriptures is not permissive, but restrictive in nature (see Heb. 7:14). We must have authority from the Scriptures for all we teach and practice (Col. 3:17). When we do what God says in religion plus things that are without scriptural authority, we have not been obedient to God. We must limit ourselves to the specificity of God s word, recognizing that we cannot add to or take away from it. We must be willing to rely upon God s wisdom to concede that what is written is adequate to produce faith, and lead us to eternal life (John 16:13; 20:30-31; 2 Tim. 3:17). Failure to respect God s silence may suggest that we obey His word only because we agree with His instruction or we find it convenient to do so. To speak where God is silent and go beyond the things which are written is presumptuous sin.
Before Jesus left this earth He promised His apostles that the Holy Spirit would come and guide them into all truth (John 16:13). All truth was revealed, preached in the first century (2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Jude 3, etc.) and recorded in such a way that when man reads it he can understand it (Eph. 3:3-5). That means that for over 19 centuries men have known this truth and souls have been saved by it (1 Tim. 2:4). Think about it! Sinners were purifying their souls through their obedience to the truth (1 Peter 1:22) some 250 years before the Nicene Creed was written; over 500 years before the first Pope and the Catholic doctrines of sprinkling for baptism, instrumental music in worship and extreme unction; 1450 years before Martin Luther and John Calvin began advancing the notions of salvation by faith only, predestination, and the direct operation of the Holy Spirit; 1500 years before there was a Baptist Manual; over 1650 years before there was a Methodist Discipline; and over 1750 years before there was a Book of Mormon. Today the same truth that saved souls in the first century is available to you. In fact, if all these human creeds, revelations and religious traditions were to perish today it would have absolutely no affect upon the Word of God. won’t you leave the creeds of men and obey the truth of God?